Tag Archives: the book of numbers

Fraught With Background

This week’s Torah portion, Mattot-Masei (Num 30,2-36,13), begins by focusing on vows. Moses explains to the leaders of the various tribes that vows are serious business. There’s a bit of good, old fashioned anti-equality for women stuff in here, but that’s not the important part. What’s important is that there are clearly many different types of vows that people took back then, all of which were to be taken gravely seriously. We then get a chapter on the Israelites wiping out the Midianites, and a chapter on a couple of the tribes (Reuben and Gad) deciding that they were pretty much done with the trekking, and would rather rebuild the towns they had just destroyed in their violent rampage against the previous inhabitants and settle down east of the Jordan River. Moses doesn’t take too kindly to this, and tells them that if they don’t want God to go off on one of his violent rages, they’d better commit to helping their Israelite brethren conquer the rest of Canaan. They agree, and then the Israelites continue on their way until the end of the Book of Numbers.

One of the most interesting segments of this portion is one that isn’t really highlighted. We see Moses being pretty irascible. He lays down some strict legislation about vows, especially in relation to women, gets pretty mad at everyone for not killing all of the Midianite women (they were previously accused of having lured those good, God-fearing Israelite men into idolatry with their Midianite sexiness), and gives the leaders of Reuben and Gad a good, firm talking to without even consulting God on the issue. So what’s got Moses all in a tizzy? I think it’s probably that he had to send his entire nation against his wife’s people for coupling with their women.Tzipporah, and her father Jethro, are stated pretty clearly to be Midianite. Jethro is actually a Midianite priest, which must make the situation even more difficult. The mixture of guilt Moses must have felt for being hypocritical and also for massacring the home nation of his wife and father in law, who helped raise his children, must have been too much to bear.

So we’ve got a full-on family drama here. Adding to this is the fact that Moses and Tzipporah’s son, Eleazer, is the high priest overseeing the splitting up of the spoils of war against the Midianites. Earlier on in the Torah, Eleazer is said to have been living with his grandfather and mother while the beginning of the Exodus took place, so this Israelite high priest definitely experienced Midianite culture  as a child. Interestingly, we don’t see Tzipporah or Jethro mentioned in this segment at all. One would figure a Midianite priest would have something to say about all of this. Instead, we just see Moses and Eleazer coldly and calmly legislating the laws of war.

One would imagine this to be a pretty catastrophic event for the family, but it’s never mentioned as such. The drama continues unfolding as we step into the second portion of this week. We see Aaron die, and the continual movement of the Israelites towards their Promised Land, which ultimately means the continual movement of Moses towards his death. This week is the end of the book of Numbers. In many ways, it is the end of the narrative of the Torah. Deuteronomy is Moses’ last speech to the Israelites. So this is the end of the drama of Moses’ life.

Contextualizing it like this, it makes the vow portion at the beginning look a little like foreshadowing. Moses married his wife, but we get very little description of the proceedings. Moses had kids, but we see him interact very little with them. Moses had a father in law that advised him at times, but who was also a Midianite. What we mainly get about Moses throughout the Torah is his relationship with God, and his relationship with the Israelite people.

One of the best articles I’ve ever read on the beauty of the narrative of the Bible is Odysseus’ Scar by Eric Auerbach. Auerbach compares Greek myth and Biblical narrative to show one of the unique aspects of the Bible’s literary style: its pregnant silences. He uses one of the most dramatic and well known stories in Genesis, the Binding of Isaac, to show how the silence between Abraham and Isaac as Abraham walks his son up the mountain to sacrifice him creates an incredible tension in the narrative. I think we have something similar here at the end of the book of Numbers.

Throughout the Torah, we never see Moses really vowing anything to anyone. In fact, he has very little to say for himself in his life. God speaks through him, tells him what to say and do, and Moses just acts the puppet. He doesn’t get to be a real father to his sons, or a real husband to his wife. Instead, he is forced into the role of leader of a malcontent, thankless nation.

Before his role as prophet, before the burning bush, Moses was a stranger in a strange land. Moses fled Egypt for fear of being found out as a murderer. He ran to a land where he thought he would be safe, and through his good deeds and works, established a family for himself. The people he found there were welcoming, and they were Midianites. He never asked to be a prophet. He never for the role of midwife to the Israelite people, but he got it nonetheless. Along with this role, he got the job of wiping out the very people who provided solace for him when he most needed it.

Moses, as the last major step in the narrative of his life, is forced to undermine the one choice we ever really see him make in life – the choice to marry Tzipporah. He never gets to fully actualize this relationship, never gets to spend time with his family, and therefore never really gets to enjoy the fruits of making such a choice. He is instead robbed of the one vow he ostensibly did make in life — that of his marriage. And in his reticence, and his focus on his son Eleazar as the one he chose to help him with the destruction of the Midianites, we see his final chance to choose his family over his role as leader of the Israelites slip away.

We all have similar choices to make, but few of us have as serious of a life calling as Moses. As we age and grow into our careers, our families, our hobbies, and our passions we choose daily which pieces of our lives define us most; which pieces get the most focus, the most time, and the most energy. Something is always going to fall by the wayside. And as we get older, the responsibilities only grow, causing each choice to become that much more potent. Our silences, like in the Bible, are as powerful as our shouts. The things we ignore or avoid have as much, if not more, defining power as to who we are as the things we focus our energies upon. Moses didn’t have much of a choice, in reality. He had the supreme creator of the universe breathing down his neck. But one wonders if, in the end, as he continued to lead the Israelites into Canaan, his silence was covering his regrets.

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Jealousy and Control

This week I was given the opportunity to lead an adult Torah study class. This class meets weekly to go over the Torah portion of the week, and is usually led by a rabbi in the congregation, but every so often I’m asked to stand in for him. The group is made up predominantly of senior women, a few senior men, and a few middle-aged men and women. The rareness of my interaction with the senior crowd makes it pretty uncomfortable for me to lead the class sometimes, though, as it seems both impudent and imprudent to attempt to correct or guide people so obviously my superiors in age. It takes a certain finesse and a very light touch to reign conversations in or to focus the discussion back onto the text when it appears that the strand of discussion isn’t leading anywhere fruitful. This wasn’t needed at all when we got into the sotah ritual.

The sotah ritual is a strange, archaic and seemingly magic-based practice that is alien to the Torah. To boil it down into a sentence, if a husband is jealous and suspects his wife of cheating he can take his wife to the priests who will publicly shame her and make her drink a mixture of water and dirt from the Tabernacle floor as a trial by ordeal. According to the text if the woman is guilty she will become barren or possibly miscarry, and if she is innocent she will be made more fertile. I expected this topic to be wildly uncomfortable for me to discuss with a room of something like 20 women and two other men (the other men were conspicuously silent throughout), but instead it was just extremely interesting.

In particular, there was a dialogue going on between two of the women, one who must be in her 80s, and one who looked to be in her late 30s or early 40s. The woman in her 80s, a firebrand that always speaks very passionately about equality, individual rights and empowerment, and is always deeply concerned with empathy and morality, spoke about the nature of adultery. I’m still not quite certain that I fully understand what she was saying, but her point of view seemed to circle around the idea that individuals have a certain level of unrestrainable impulse that leads them to do things such as cheat, accuse each other of cheating, and punish each other for cheating. She appeared to be saying that humanity must accept these as realities, and deal with them as inevitable.

In a way, the middle-aged woman was agreeing with her. She described the ritual as being a sort of sublimation of male rage and desire to exert power over women. Although she was careful to say that the sotah was clearly not a positive practice (and the practice was done away with by the leadership of the Temple during the Second Temple Period) she believed that, similar to the older woman, there are certain men who cannot restrain their impulses, and that this ritual gave them an outlet to exercise their “power” rather than being openly violent towards their wives.

One of the other women pointed out that it seemed pretty insane that these ancient Israelite men would be so deeply concerned with such an issue when they were faced with so many other problems, like wandering in the desert without any kind of real stability.  This apparent irony led us to one of the greatest points that can be drawn from this awful ritual. It is entirely clear why this would be such a popular issue in the community, and I believe it is for the same reason that domestic violence happens so often in socioeconomic areas where people have the least control over their lives.

To spin all of the reflections and reactions these women had to the ritual into one thread, the act of men exerting power over women has been a consistent outlet for anxieties related to individual disempowerment throughout human history. When people feel deeply that have little to no control over their lives, but do not recognize it for what it is, they tend to clamp down on whatever it is that they do have control over. Tyrannical bosses, abusive partners or parents, anyone with a modicum of power over others can be seen to exhibit these tendencies. As the older woman in the class pointed out, this is an almost universal tendency in humanity: passions cause us to act irrationally, and often cruelly, when we are put into tenuous and difficult situations. As the younger woman in the class pointed out as well, this ritual may very well have been an attempt at a pressure release valve for men who had the tendency to sublimate their power and control issues into something more devastating than causing the public humiliation of having to drink water and dirt.

I think the authors, priests, or whoever decided to include this ritual in the Torah included it for this reason. It shows that a person inflamed by jealousy is bound to do some kind of damage. In fact, jealousy is often used in the Torah and the Tanach to explain God’s angry reaction to the Israelites, which often led to violence against the Israelites. We all know that we have done regrettable things based on false assumptions and deep-seated control issues. I honestly believe most neuroses stem from a perceived or very real lack of control over our lives, and the incredibly anxiety caused by the lack. The sotah as a construct for ritual release of these powerful forces has been, and surely should have been, done away with. Regardless, the basis for it is still important to remember. There is a great lesson we can take from such an archaic and unsettling practice: As a moment of reflection, the next time you feel the need to knock someone else down a peg through any means, including but not limited to public humiliation as seen in the sotah, consider what is driving your desire. Is it jealousy? Or is it a need to exert what little control you have? Either way, I doubt that the mixture of dirty water you are attempting to force someone else to drink will have any real effect at all.

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